Supermarket Sweep

15 December 2009 Stephen Archer

With Marc Bolland and Archie Norman set to make high-profile moves from ASDA and Morrisons, respectively, Stephen Archer of Spring Partnerships examines the role of supermarkets in delivering our most notable chief executives.

The recent news that Marc Bolland will become CEO of Marks & Spencer and Archie Norman (formally of ASDA - part of Wal-Mart) will become chief executive of ITV brings into focus how much talent for marketing and building big business seems to come out of the supermarket industry.

Be it Terry Leahy at Tesco or Justin King at Sainsbury’s; retail giant CEOs are carving a niche as the leading businessmen in the game. Sadly, we find it harder to name an equally significant manufacturing leader. Just 25 years ago people such as John Harvey-Jones and Nick Scheele were examples of top CEOs and industrialists. Now we can name the heads of banks and building societies before the head of BAE systems.

Bolland and Norman are powerful, effective CEOs with immense achievements behind them. But are supermarketers a kind of panacea for any troubled major business? And will these men be capable of driving big change without destroying existing value?

"Be it Terry Leahy at Tesco or Justin King at Sainsbury’s; retail giant CEOs are carving a niche as the leading businessmen in the game."

In the case of M&S, some heavy hitters have been trying to modernise its competences for the past 20 years, with only limited success. Big companies are the hardest to change due to their sheer inertia but in today’s fast-moving markets it is critical that leaders also drive change and adapt corporate culture. The apparent certainties in business are ever diminishing.

For Archie Norman at ITV the task is far easier. There has been a modest upswing in advertising revenue and shareholders are receptive to radical change. The digital broadband age is proving a challenge, however, as the plethora of choice increases daily.

So how does a supermarket chief cure these ills and how will he take people with him?

Norman is a prodigiously bright strategist and marketer. He understands the changing habits and expectations of consumers and the changing landscape of broadcast and advertising.

With change happening so fast, Norman's biggest danger is that ITV cannot keep the pace. It will only fail if capital is unavailable and people do not buy into vision. In this regard he has a tough job. ITV is over 50 years old and the pressure it is under has manifested itself in the past 18 months. His 100-day plan may be easy to sell to shareholders and potential investors but getting his people behind it will be tougher. He will need to be bold but people will expect that.

Bolland will have a tougher job at Marks & Spencer. It is very traditional and although Stuart Rose has done much to steer it through troubled waters, it survives on brand reputation and sheer market presence. It cannot rely on these for its prosperity.

Bolland never rested when he was CEO at Morrisons and his 100-day plan will need to delight the city and motivate staff if it is have any chance of success.

Make an impact

So how should a CEO make their presence felt in the early days? Within 48 hours the new CEO must communicate to the organisation what they believe in, what they intend to do (this will mostly refer to process) and by when.

They must also communicate why they are doing it and what is expected from employees in the short and long term.

After four weeks they must make an update communication to all, but by then they should also have been seen on 90% of the 'shop floor' so that their visibility and personality are seen and felt in the organisation.

After three months they should announce the changes they intend to make to the business.